There are advantages to being in Africa.
One is that it expands your world further.
Another is that stereotypes you’ve had, misconceptions you’ve had, expectations you’ve had go completely out of the window, when you come and you realize that the things you’ve read about Africa are not all necessarily true.
For another, you may discover how different you are from them, but more often than not, you’ll discover how similar your lives are, how you think and feel and dream and wish for the same things, that at the end of the day, we’re all just living under the same sun afterall.
Another advantage you have: you discover a wholly different world, of books and music and movies and artists and writers that you wouldn’t have discovered had you stayed home. 🙂
A few days ago the housemate downloaded a video of a speech from a writer I had never heard of, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is my literary ignorance, and the fact that back home, it is mostly world literature is eclipsed by either self-help books or books by Stephanie Meyer.
I listened to the speech, whilst watching an episode of a Filipino telenovela badly dubbed in English. As the speech began, with Adichie talking about childhood reading memories filled in blonde-blue eyed children, white people talking about the weather, people eating apples, and producing the exact same stories later on, not realizing that these were removed from a country where it was always hot, and people ate mangoes, and there weren’t any blonde-blue eyed children, I found myself listening to her speech.As her speech progressed, talking about the time when, as a student in America, she had an American roommate who irritated her with her ignorance about Africa and its people, I couldn’t help but listen. By the time she was talking about the dangers of a single story, how that creates stereotypes, how stereotypes are dangerous because they are stories that are incomplete, and must needs be completed, I had turned the volume on the tv down, completely engrossed in her speech.
I have, since then, been looking for the complete text of her speech. What I have found though is an excerpt of her speech at cnn.com:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo (Nigerian language) word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called “American Psycho”—(Laughter)—and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. (Laughter) (Applause) Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. (Laughter)”
I remember my own childhood then, of stories about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and of Beauty and the Beast, of white-skinned, beautiful young women who always seemed to need to be in danger and the tall, handsome, dashing young princely men who always rescued them. I never wanted to be these white young women, I was shorter, I had brown skin, I knew I could never be as pretty as they were…but I did want to be those young men – they always seemed to have more fun. 🙂 (but that will be a story reserved for another day).
As I grew, I was able to read books by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and contemporary authors like James Michener, Leon Uris and popular authors like John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon. I’ve moved a step up, maybe, but maybe not. They were white, most times male, and they wrote about realities that were far removed from mine. Sure there were universal themes that I could relate to, love and honor and courage and all that, but at the end of the day, it was a different perspective still. This is probably why when I started writing, my stories were set in the Philippines, but they could just as well be set somewhere else – in some white, middle class suburb somewhere, with snow and maple trees and blue-eyed people talking about the weather. 🙂
I’ve since not written any story. There was a period of working and just looking for myself and wondering if writing fiction was what I really wanted. It’s a question I haven’t answered, since my years of journalism has made me want to write real stories, not fictional ones.
As I listened to Adichie, it made me want to write again. But barely. Maybe this time I might just write. 🙂